Highly Suspect interview: “If we've alienated you, that's a good thing”

Highly Suspect press shot
(Image credit: 300 Entertainment)

Highly Suspect vocalist Johnny Stevens isn’t afraid of saying exactly how he feels on just about everything. Ask him about anything, and you can expect a long, yet straightforward answer. This could apply to their upcoming album, MCID, too. 

Sixteen songs in length, the album touches on an array of personal subjects and defies genre – blending rock, rap, hip-hop, pop, heavy metal and just about everything in between. 

Equating this genre-blending to mixing red and blue to make purple, Stevens is not one to hold back from comparisons. As he compares speaking about his feelings to Mount Everest and the bands’ usual instruments to Van Gogh’s paintbrush, he talks to us about MCID, his future plans, dream collaborations and the days when Highly Suspect were just a cover band.

Was it a conscious decision to collaborate with such a range of artists? Why

"Everything we do is a conscious decision. We really enjoy the process of making art and so for the first time, we decided that we wanted to team up with other true artists. With the exception of the hip-hop and the pop world, you don't see too many collaborations these days. There was a time in rock history however – the 60s to 80s – where people teamed up all the time and made really incredible and different shit that could only come from the love of art itself. 

"When one chemical or element is mixed with another, you get a third. Red and blue make purple. Could you imagine life without purple? We wanted to give you some purple."


Which was your favourite collaboration from MCID?

"I think they are all uniquely amazing and I have so much love for the artists that worked with us. All of them. I will say the easiest one by far was with Gojira, because [vocalist] Joe Duplantier and I were neighbours in the same apartment complex in Brooklyn for almost five years. We are like true family. I rolled up at his personal studio one day just to chill out – his studio is a mile away from mine – and showed him this song that we had been working on and he was gassed on it. Then we rolled a couple and got incredibly stoned and the song was finished that night. I love that man with all my heart. We share some crazy history. Mario Duplantier actually is still my neighbour when I’m in Brooklyn."

We read you don’t enjoy rock music anymore – why do you think that is? What needs to change?

"It’s not that I don’t enjoy rock music – I just can't stand the mainstream rock sound that much. And so if we’re going to be mainstream, since that seems to be what’s happening naturally, I'd rather take the reins and start trying to create new sounds. There is plenty of good rock out there, but I'm an artist and my day job is music. 

"So for some of this album, we put down our typical instruments and made art with new tools. Maybe Van Gogh sculpted something at one point in his life instead of painting. Feel me? Nothing needs to change, there are people that absolutely live for the early 2000s mainstream rock sound and that's great. I just want to explore – I want to go places that most bands don't. We all do, and so we did. That being said, I love playing [our] rock, it feels so good to wail on a guitar. There are 16 songs on this album, don't get it twisted – there is still plenty of rock throughout the album."

How was it co-producing an album that carried such a different sound?

"I look up to our producer Joel Hamilton on such a heavy level. He came from our hometown, but that has zero correlation with why we decided to work with him for the first time back in 2013/14. Because of that, we share such a heavy bond. We both come from New England. There is a certain rough edge and interesting humour that comes from that region that you only understand if you’re from there and it amplifies when you move to Brooklyn. He’s been in Brooklyn for over 20 years now and I’m coming up on 10. I want to be like Joel when I grow up, I want to produce other artists and help them unlock their full potential. 

"In fact, so much so that I just started leasing my very own studio room from his studio. I will be underneath him as it’s a two floor massive space in Williamsburg. There I can learn even more from him and those he surrounds himself with. So over the years I've learned so much, we have always worked with Joel. I got to the point where I’m good enough to actually produce not just write, I understand sonics more and how to take demos all the way to the finished product. I still can't really mix or master. So the band and Joel all agreed that I had graduated to co-producer. It’s an amazing feeling. I can't wait to go full bore and help out someone that just needs that extra refinement that I now know I can give."

What were some of your favourite songs to play when you were covering songs? Do you think this has influenced where you are as a band with this album?

"I don’t want anything to do with this question! (Laughs)

"It trips me out that we started as a bar cover band as kids. Playing Hendrix, freestyle rapping and making up weird versions of Bob Seger songs. I don’t know, we were just super young and having tons of fun. I really miss those days sometimes... But that's gone now. Now we're making the art. I’d be a fool to think that all those years of covering songs didn't influence us in some way, but I think you'll find MCID sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard."

How do you think the current American political landscape affected your music?

Canals and Silk Road (songs from MCID) are going to explain that to you far better than I could right now in this hotel without writing an entire editorial for The New York Times or something.  It’s very clear where we stand on the American political landscape, shit is bad right now. Not just here but it all stems from here. 

You listen to Canals and The Silk Road  and you'll see exactly how it affected our music. We are not fucking around with trying to keep everyone happy - if we've alienated you because of our political views, I consider it a good thing. At this point, it’s beyond politics. It’s about humanity, there is no excuse to support this bum. Kids in cages? Let’s not do this here... I get my animosity out through my songs and on stage. 

The album is described as “vulnerable” – how does it feel releasing such personal songs to the public?

"That part sucks, but it's important. This album is by far the realest admissions of self-observation I've ever written and it’s scary to let people know about my life. It’s scary to go online and read people talking about you and spouting their opinions, but I believe there are people out there who have struggled and continue to struggle just like me. So I feel like if I can help them, it’s worth it. Very few people can climb Mount Everest; I can't. But I can man up and tell the entire world about my fuck ups and what it means to be a human, and I think in its own way, being so raw in front of so many is a Mount Everest. I think I’m here to tell a story, one that will all make sense to people long after I’m gone. Now I just wonder will it be a cautionary tale or an inspiring victory. Time will tell."

Did you have anyone (e.g. label, friends, family, fans) to convince when deciding to take the sound in another direction?

"Nope. Everyone in my camp (band, label, management, agents, etc.) know that we have always experimented with sounds, that we were a cover band and there is no style we can't play. It’s just a good vibe in our crew, no stress. [300 Entertainment boss] Kev Liles trusts us to do what we want and he appreciates art, legitimately, as a person. He runs the label, but we FaceTime every day and hang and are real life friends, so no worries there. 

"[Bandmates] Rich, Ryan and Matt are a lot like me in some ways and very different in others, but one thing we all enjoy is the art of sound. If we’re not having fun, I will disappear into the woods with my dog and some dirt bikes and say goodbye to music. I will never be slave to opinion, luckily, I don’t have to be."

What are your plans for after the album release? Can you see more hip-hop on the cards?

"I think it would be fun to make a straight-up punk EP, just with a few two minute songs that rip. I’d also like to make an acoustic blues album and I want to produce other artists and make beats for people. We will just keep creating and let you all decide what to do with it, probably drop some weird instrumental-electro music at some point.

"Have you ever heard any of the Beastie Boys country jams or instrumental albums? God those motherfuckers were real deal artists. I won’t dare compare ourselves to the Beastie Boys, but I will be the first to tell you how much I admire all the many styles of music they have given to the world. Every song has its place; sometimes you want to cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway listening to Elvis and The Beach Boys, sometimes you're in the gym and you want to hear Drake, sometimes you're fucking the hottest one night stand of the month and you wanna throw some Sade on vinyl... You feel me? we want to do everything and we will, too!"

If you could collaborate with anyone for the next release, who would it be? Why?

"I don’t know really... At this point I’m over the snobbery. I'd probably work with anyone – it’s more about what do you release? Sometimes you work with someone and it doesn't vibe, so you don’t put it out. Jesse Hughes (Eagles Of Death Metal) has a copy of Shine On You Crazy Diamond we did together at his house, acoustic, with two voices and a sledgehammer on a wooden floor for the drum. I think he's waiting until I die to release it.

"I would work with Baby Goth, Slowthai, Frank Carter, Iggy Azalea, Diplo, Mark Ronson, Meek Mill, Tei Shi, Billie Eilish, Annie Clarke (St. Vincent), Little Dragon, Da Baby, Post Malone, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Sam Smith and Bring Me The Horizon in a heartbeat.

"For now, just go get your mind blown by MCID. it’s an album you have to hear front to back in order to understand, in the same way you would with Pink Floyd or Kendrick Lamar. I never write singles, we make albums and singles come from them. There is a very clear and raw story that is about to be told. It’s less of an album than it is an experience. 

"I hope you enjoy and if not, no worries, just fight me on Twitter and it will still help the promotion."

Highly Suspect’s new album, MCID, is out on November 1 via 300 Entertainment.